30 October 2007

And a time for every purpose under Heaven



The Families First party was created in a specific political environment in the early part of this decade. That time has passed and so too, FF will not have the effect on this election that its supporters might hope or its opponents fear.

Five years ago, the Howard government was shovelling money at Christian schools, and committed Christians such as Peter Costello, John Anderson and Howard himself talked volubly about their faith. Then-opposition leader Kim Beazley was also a man of faith. Yet ... somehow it wasn't enough.

Family First was born out of the Assemblies of God churches: protestations that the AoG and FF are intrinsically separate has yet to be tested by any serious divergence of opinion between the two organisations. In 2004 it experienced a surge in support after Mark Latham became leader of the ALP. Latham followed Whitlam in acknowledging no deity higher than himself, and attacked government grants to private schools.

Fred Nile was caught napping when the wave of support for Christian politics surged and ebbed without him. To his disgrace, he had to resort to neo-Hansonism to get up at the NSW election.

FF were strongest in Victoria, but not particularly strong there. Victorians were non-plussed about Howard but decidedly hostile to Latham. The preference trail that catapulted Stephen Fielding into the Senate were the result of FF being underestimated. Fielding replaced the committed Catholic Jacinta Collins, a zero-sum gain for people who vote on Christian/life issues. Collins is at the top of the Senate ticket for the Victorian ALP in this election, and Fielding isn't up for election. The major parties are well and truly awake to FF.

More than that, they've neutered FF entirely. Fielding hasn't lost that deer-in-the-headlights look, hedging his bets with the best of them but not doing anything apart from standard political stuntwork. His supporters might claim that he's got both innocence and passion like the Jimmy Stewart character in Mr Smith goes to Washington, but (by golly) that character achieved more in is first seventy-two hours than Fielding has or will.

On no issue has Fielding took a firm stand like Brian Harradine did over abortion, euthanasia or porn. On no issue has Fielding brokered a serious deal. He is no Don Chipp, no Bob Brown, no Barnaby Joyce; to drag his party into contention he'd need to be all that and something else again. Nobody believes that crap about fuel taxes. Fielding is a time server like any major-party backbencher, and it is doubtful that he'll be re-elected in 2010.

To come back from the wilderness, Labor had to claw back support from somewhere. The articles Kevin Rudd wrote for The Monthly about his faith, which mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other matters, was a start. Those Australians who want a Christian presence in politics such as we see in the US have been sorely disappointed in the do-nothing Fielding First, and it's now clear that Christians can vote for Rudd Labor without the affront to their faith that Latham represented. Perhaps it took a Queenslander to see that the Christian vote was not the preserve of wackos, but one that can be balanced with other parts of society.

Why was the Christian lobby unconvinced by Howard? Why are they not rusted-on supporters, handing out Liberal Party material in church and denouncing old-style Labor from the pulpits? Why is Pell, the vainest windbag in public life since Gough Whitlam, so ineffective in getting his policies through the political process? Someone other than Marion Maddox should examine this.

FF has two members of the Legislative Council in South Australia, but so what? Nick Xenophon has eaten both their lunch and that of the Democrats. FF has no discernible future, it won't win any more seats in the Senate and is a non-starter at any other state election coming up. FF may hope to feed on the carrion of the post-Howard coalition parties but there are others better placed to do that, others who can see them coming.

There is a space for religion in Australian politics but FF can't park in that space.

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